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Neutral Evil: Close-Up on "Azor"

Andreas Fontana's debut film finds darkness behind the plush façade of Swiss banking and high-class society in Argentina's repressive 1980s.
Jessica Kiang
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI.  Andreas Fontana's Azor is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries starting December 3, 2021 in the series Debuts.
In Carol Reed's The Third Man, Harry Lime—for so much of the film a semi-mythic spectre—reaches about for a metaphor for worthy, peaceable dullness to contrast with the culturally fertile ferment of Renaissance-era Italy. He comes up with Switzerland. "In Switzerland," he drawls, in that infuriatingly amused, contemptuous baritone of his, "They had brotherly love, and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Swiss director Andreas Fontana's Azor, an impossibly accomplished feature debut in which the character of René Keys becomes a structuring absence to rival Lime's, challenges that assertion. And not just because, as we've all been made aware by the tsk-ing of a thousand pedants since, the cuckoo clock actually originates in Bavaria. Fontana's precise and eerie film makes us rethink the premise, makes us question how much the carefully cultivated Swiss reputation for scrupulous neutrality should be taken as a token of innocence or guilelessness or moral purity. In Azor, it is merely a smokescreen, a politely anonymous smile behind which may flourish corruption of an order that would make a Borgia blush. In this world, built from images so clean and crisp they appear, like the dubious money and immaculate clothes, to have been laundered, neutrality is untrustworthy. But then, here, all appearances are deceptive; only disappearances reveal. 
It's Keys' sudden disappearance in Buenos Aires that has revealed the precarious position of Keys Lamar De Wiel, the Geneva-based private bank for which he worked, prompting his business partner Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) and his wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) to make the long journey from Europe. And into that gaping absence the clients, colleagues, and competitors who knew Keys project all their fears and insecurities. He is described, variously, as "a good man" and "a toad." He was "charming" and he was "despicable." He was "exceptionally generous" and also "greedy." He was "depraved," "brilliant" and "toxic," and was rumored to keep company with "beasts." Against this impossibly contradictory vortex of impressions, the ominously named but ostensibly mild de Wiel—as brilliantly portrayed by a studiedly nondescript Rongione—can scarcely be expected to measure up. 
Keys has gone missing in an age of disappearance. It is Argentina in 1980, four years deep into the brutally repressive military-run regime that hides behind its own euphemistic facade: the National Reorganization Process. The choice of this precise historical moment gives Azor thrillingly specific access to the intersectional workings of wealth and power, and a perspective that, unusually, does not simply pit the haves against the have-nots. The Argentinian military junta's terror tactics were visited not just on the usual suspects—students, journalists, left-wing activists, rebels, and intellectuals—but on the old-money upper echelons too, who could find themselves summarily dispossessed of the wealth they'd always believed would insulate them from social and political upheaval. 
And so, by making Yvan the protagonist of the story (or rather, Yvan-and-Ines, for theirs is a fascinatingly symbiotic partnership) Fontana has an ideal vantage point from which to observe the moral decay of the supposedly disinterested third parties who stand to capitalize when wealth and power are weaponized against each other. Azor makes the case that evil doesn't just exist at the extremes of terrorist agitation and military-state suppression. It is maybe most concentrated in the milky middle—not in the clenched fists of khaki-clad, bloodstained zealots, but in the quick handshakes of casually multilingual men wearing pressed suits picked out for them by their elegant, ruthless wives. 
On their way in from the airport, through the window of their embassy car, the couple observes a small commotion as soldiers at a roadblock perform a stop-and-frisk. It's a crude, street-level sampler of the same authoritarianism that Yvan and Ines, who slot frictionlessly into Buenos Aires high society, will feel as a subtler but no less oppressive paranoia, hanging in the stultifying air of plush drawing rooms like a lingering pall of cigarette smoke. The bank's wealthy, secretive clients may not worry about being snatched from the street at gunpoint, but they are in justified fear of losing their assets—their horses, houses, holdings—and who are the affluent without their affluence? They might as well be ghosts.
Their fear is all the more insidious for being faceless and formless, muting to a murmur the voices of men in wood-panelled club rooms, wending across manicured lawns, through copses and stables, spooking the thoroughbreds. At one point during the de Wiels' visit, rich dowager Viuda Lacrosteguy (Carmen Iriondo) tells, with a faraway look in her hooded eyes, of how Keys accompanied her on trips to Europe. As her dreamy voiceover continues, Gabriel Sandru's implacable camera wanders away from the little poolside gathering, taking in instead unpeopled views of the elegant villa: an empty lawn chair; an unoccupied sofa; a bust gazing silently out from a bookshelf. It's as though the house itself were waiting for its inhabitants, too, to vanish. 
Other members of this rarefied set have also been affected by state-involved abductions. Augusto Padel-Camón (Juan Trench), who takes Yvan and Ines riding on skittish horses through his grand and windy estate, is mourning his missing daughter, Leopolda. His grief manifests in bitterness toward his feckless sons and in the unrealistic hope that Leopolda might still be returned to him. He asks Yvan to keep money secretly in trust for her, which the banker arranges tactfully, passing off a gym bag stuffed with the requisite cash to a subordinate to smuggle back to Switzerland. But Yvan knows that Leopolda, like Keys, will not come back. Nobody ever does. 
Keys and Leopolda represent the big, messy ruptures around which Azor is built. But the film is attuned to the eloquence of smaller, quieter departures too. Ines, superbly played by Cléau as the very embodiment of sangfroid and savoir faire, is especially gifted in the art of the strategically discreet exit. She's forever excusing herself from the table, drawing unwanted guests away from her husband's side, cannily reading the criss-crossing ley lines of power at social events, and maneuvering out of the way. Not because of any natural diffidence on her part; Ines outmatches her husband in cunning, calculating intelligence. But when she jokes that she and Yvan are "one and the same person—him" she is only half joking. In private she can be scabrous as well as supportive ("Your father was right," she tells him with devastating offhand disdain,"Fear makes you mediocre.") But she is wholly dedicated, if not to him, then to a version of them of which he, as the man, must be the public front. 
And she understands the value of optics: when Yvan is curtly told that a meeting is men-only, Ines unhesitatingly leaves, no offense taken. It is partly her impeccable breeding. But it's no stretch to imagine that she is also aware of the impression it gives to boorish men that her husband—who might at times convey meekness or weakness—can command such an impressive woman to withdraw, and she will uncomplainingly obey. Back in their room, her judgement is integral to what Yvan will do and say and wear ("You and your directives!" he spits, in a rare flash of temper.) But out in the world her function is to adorn him, and to glide in and out of rooms much the way she swims the breaststroke in the hotel pool: gracefully, leaving no churn in her wake. 
Don't show what you feel, don't reveal what you know, don't say what you mean. The word "azor" is the couple's code for "be quiet." And it's only one such secret signal: Someone "having two yolks" is untrustworthy; to be a "monkey with a golden mouth" is to play the innocent. It's a patois designed to communicate unease while maintaining an unruffled surface, much the way Viuda and Keys used to sing as they made their way through airport customs: "They don't suspect happy people" was what Keys believed, but neither do they suspect the calm. And so Yvan knows to maintain an untroubled exterior, whatever happens. Clad in expensively-cut dark suits, a uniform of unobtrusiveness that he wears like armor—no wonder he never swims—he swallows insults, deflects confrontations and pretends not to see (codeword: "faire condois") when someone is trying to push his buttons. 
Azor
This cannot be easy when, especially among the men, there are definite gauntlets thrown down. Under Paul Courlet's unsettling score—sinister synths that contain just a hint of Dracula's castle—the hulking, obscurely terrifying Monsignor Tatoski (Pablo Torre Nilsson), pure avarice tucked into a clerical collar, subtly taunts Yvan for his timidity around currency markets, where Keys was bold and greedy. More obviously still, the brash, unlikeable lawyer Dekerman (Juan Pablo Geretto) tries to shock Yvan with crude language deriding his social-climbing boss. And later, at a party, Dekerman strides toward Yvan, zipping his fly after urinating in the bushes and extending a pointedly unwashed hand. Without batting an eyelid, Yvan shakes it. 
Disappearances, departures, evasions, omissions. What does all this studious avoidance, this pride-suppressing self-control cost Yvan? Only in their hotel room does he allow the mask to slip a little, and permit himself a confession. He feels inadequate. Keys left a Keys-hole, one Yvan does not think he can fill. Once again, it is Ines who snaps him out of it. Yvan will succeed where Keys failed: All he has to do is stay still, keep his nerve, be quiet. Azor. 
And so Yvan goes downriver to meet his destiny, explicitly recalling Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola, and the voyage through sluggish waterways in the looming shadow of Kurtz, another of fiction's titanic absent presences. Just as Kurtz had gone mad with power and colonial unaccountability, so Keys was rumored to have "completely lost his mind," which is where Yvan, finally, outdoes his partner: he survives, and if he's perhaps not quite sane himself, he maintains sanity's appearance. Awash in dirty money from a dirty deal in the Dirty War, Yvan returns clean, his heart of darkness sheathed in an unstained shirt. For him, it's not "the horror, the horror"—if anything he seems, for the first time, pleased. He once compared Keys to a toad. But in this moment, Yvan has become the far more dangerous creature, hiding his satisfaction under cover of night the way a crocodile, eyes glittering, hides its smile under murky water.

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